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Earlier today I caught up with the twin labor disputes currently afflicting the region’s garbage collectors. Both disputes came to a head at the end of March as the members of Teamster Local 174 authorized strike action against two companies, Allied Waste and Waste Management. (At that time neither company had come to a new contract agreement with their workers.) As the old contracts expired, Allied Waste came back to the bargaining table, and their employees voted overwhelmingly to accept a new compromise contract. But the Waste Management dispute isn’t going nearly so well.


Details after the jump.

Since the beginning of April, Waste Management has been busily advertising for replacement (commonly known as “scab”) drivers, and interviewing for the potential positions. According to The Seattle Times more than 2,200 people applied for the jobs; the paper also reported that the company is considering locking out its existing workforce (an aggressive tactic commonly used to pressure employees into accepting the latest management offer). Management is still standing by its “last, best, and final offer”, which includes an incremental five year wage hike, increased healthcare premiums, less money for pensions, and less funding for the healthcare of retirees. Company spokeswoman Jackie Lang has yet to return my calls for comment. (Waste Management has a “Labor Negotiations Update” page on their website, which serves to keep their clientele abreast of the situation.)

Local 174 spokesperson Michael Gonzales says the union plans “to concentrate back on Waste Management” this week, after allowing their members to work without a contract while the union focused on ratification of the Allied deal. The first step in this process took place Sunday at the Teamsters hall where 1,000 people turned out for a Seattle Trash Watch training. The event was held to instruct sympathetic community members how to respond in the event of a strike. Basically, the Teamsters gave out a phone number (1-800-976-0071) that would direct callers to city managers to complain about missed pickup. The idea is that such complaints would activate a fine system embedded in Waste Management’s contract with Seattle that would hit the company with fines of around $50 per missed pick-up, per day. If enough of these fines piled up the union hopes that a strike would become unsustainable for the company. With enough complaints another possibility is that Seattle might enact another provision in their contract with Waste Management: a clause that would force the company to lease its facilities to the city, if it was found to be incapable of fulfilling its duties. (This would, theoretically, be the case in the event of a long strike or lock-out.)

This is an interesting tactic, and it seems as though the Teamsters have quite a bit of community support given the high attendance rates of Sunday’s meeting. But I think I see a flaw in the plan. From the union’s perspective, what makes Waste Management’s proposed contracts unacceptable is that the company can afford to pay for the healthcare and pension plans their employees rely on (and which other regional garbage companies offer their workers). Local 174 correctly points out that Waste Management is a national corporation with comfortable profit margins, despite the company’s protestations that better conditions are impossible due to “the economy”. But wouldn’t Waste Management’s healthy profits make it easier for the company to shrug off the fines that the Teamsters hope to hit them with? Many large, profitable companies have shown themselves willing to suffer substantial losses from monetary fines during labor disputes—for many corporations they are merely a cost of doing business. Why would these fines be any different for Waste Management? I don’t know if the other hoped for outcome—Seattle taking over the company’s facilities—is even realistic.

To my knowledge, there are no further talks yet planned between the two sides. Hopefully, an agreement can be reached before anyone takes drastic action, although from the folks I’ve talked with I’m not overly confident. Otherwise Seattle residents are going to be in for some profound unpleasantness. Garbage strikes are really, really gross. Just Google image “garbage strike” and you’ll see what I mean. Ew.

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